The new school year is opening with a "zero tolerance policy" toward violence in schools. The education minister has had the Students' Rights Law amended, making it possible to bar offending students from school before their appeals are heard. The public will undoubtedly be pleased - according to an NRG-Ma'ariv survey just published, 72 percent of respondents believe school discipline should be stricter.
But tougher discipline and punishments won't solve the problem. Seeing the students as the problem overlooks the fact that the vast majority of "problematic" students are not that way because of their nature, but because of their disadvantaged backgrounds. Children who use violence - physical or otherwise - are venting frustration, distress and helplessness, which they have no other way of dealing with.
There are many reasons for violence among schoolchildren. Many of these stem from conditions at home such as corporal punishment, sexual abuse, violence between parents, divorce and unemployment. Critical social factors are also at work: exposure to violent and pornographic material on television, on the Internet, in advertising and on the news; the security situation; and the individualistic message of caring only for oneself. And there are congenital problems such as attention and concentration disorders, as well as psychological disturbances. Finally, there are nutritional problems. Research shows a link between poor diets and violence; there is less violence where there are proper school-meal programs.
Not only is severe punishment no solution to any of these problems, it causes more damage. Harsh sanctions only make children carry on using the same violent language, and expulsion from school only sends them out into the jungle of life, where they will grow up to be even more violent.
Indeed, the Education Ministry is not making do with merely more severe punishments. As well as the amendment to the law, the ministry's director general has sent out a booklet based on a year and a half of work by a committee seeking ways to create a safe school environment and reduce student violence. Contrary to the criticism of this document, principals have not lost their discretion regarding punishment. In addition, the booklet emphasizes what students are not allowed to do within their rights. It stresses the importance of creating a positive, supportive climate that would reduce violence.
What the booklet lacks, however, is any reference to the roots of the problems and how to go about solving them. Some solutions can be found in a plan put forward by the Child Welfare Council, after its representatives withdrew from the committee in protest. First of all, professionals must be brought in to diagnose the problems and treat them; the social-work system has to be brought back in all schools and the number of school psychologists must be doubled. According to the state comptroller's report, less than half the positions are currently filled. In addition, the school-nurse system must be bolstered and children should undergo tests to ensure that their hearing, vision and attention spans are in good shape.
The education system is also urged to take into account that in many cases parents are the root of the problem, so staff must be capable of coping with them.
Moreover, students should be given genuine rights, out of an understanding that they deserve them. Although the director general's booklet discusses the need to let the students play a part in building a better climate, only two of the committee's 46 members were students.
Another aspect not given enough attention is the teachers. The Child Welfare Council points out that standards must be set for handling teachers who behave inappropriately, even if these teachers are in the minority. This is the right approach, but we should also take into account that teachers are exposed to violence at school and elsewhere, in their private lives, like the rest of us. In each school, one staff member should be appointed to help teachers with their problems and guide them in their relations with students - something like the supervision that every psychologist has to have.
All this requires money, but it is an essential investment. Israel can make no more vital and worthwhile investment today. There is no knowledge the system can impart as valuable as the creation of a healthier environment, which will produce nonviolent citizens who will bring up nonviolent children in the future.
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